All That Matters

Times Staff Writer

Hugo Guzman wakes up most mornings worried about mortgage payments.

As the top-ranked high school wrestler in California at 103 pounds, Guzman should agonize about such things as making weight, perfecting new techniques and winning the next tournament, but most days, it's mortgage payments and utility bills that trouble the Santa Ana High senior.

Due dates creep up quickly each month and often on his way out of the house for pre-dawn training runs, Guzman glances at the stack of bills on the kitchen counter and wonders if the struggle will ever end.

Guzman, 18, comes from a poor family that until recently had its seven members in a run-down, one-bedroom apartment in a downtrodden neighborhood of Santa Ana. His father, a cook for a local fast-food restaurant chain, and his mother, a dishwasher for another local eatery, struggle to make ends meet.

The oldest of five children, Guzman works about 20 hours a week at a grocery store to help his family pay the bills. Three nights a week, from 6 until midnight, Guzman mops floors, restocks shelves and collects shopping carts in the parking lot.

He also maintains a B-minus average in school and puts in the rigorous training that has helped him maintain his No. 1 ranking this season, but that stack of bills is always on his mind.

"Every day I wake up, I think, 'Here comes another painful day,' " Guzman said. "I wonder why I can't be some other person and not have to deal with this at all. I get tired of it, but I have to do it. It's not like it's going to go away."

On a typical day, Guzman wakes up at 5 or 6 a.m. for a three- to four-mile run, goes to school from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., then works out with the team until 5 before heading to work. After a full day of school and work, he spends about two hours on homework. Some nights he sleeps three hours, but for Guzman, there is no other choice.

Six months ago, no longer able to endure their cramped apartment, the Guzmans bought a three-bedroom house.

The mortgage is nearly double the rent they used to pay and the utility bills are higher. The five children, 6 to 18, eat more food, it seems, every day.

Myra, Guzman's 16-year-old sister, is working five days a week. Another sister, Nelly, 14, turned in a job application at an Italian restaurant last week.

"I put that I would do anything," Nelly said. "I want to work so I can help my family."

The pressure on Guzman is immense and sometimes he feels that he isn't doing enough.

"If I wasn't wrestling, I would be working more," he said. "Right now, everything put together is barely enough to pay all the bills. Sometimes I get mad because I can't buy nothing for myself [because] all the money I make goes to the bills. Our family needs it."

Still, Guzman continues to wrestle. His parents, immigrants from Acapulco, Mexico, who do not speak English, asked him to quit wrestling last year, but he said no because he believes wrestling could take him away from his despair. His parents cannot afford college tuition. A wrestling scholarship is his only hope.

"I just want to go somewhere else," Guzman said. "Up to San Francisco, to Boston, anywhere in the United States."

Guzman grew up thinking wrestling was for big guys in masks, like what he saw on television, but a year after joining the high school team as a freshman, he qualified for state.

"He was a natural at wrestling," said Scott Glabb, the wrestling coach at Santa Ana. "He picked it up right away. He was in great shape and very strong for his size."

Guzman has qualified for the state championships in each of the last two seasons and has finished second in his Southern Section division for two consecutive years.

So far this season he is 19-1, his only loss coming when he stepped up a weight class for a tournament in Washington and lost in overtime in the 112-pound final to Cory Vombaur, the Washington state runner-up last year. He has won his weight class in three tournaments and is likely to be seeded No. 1 at 103 pounds for the Five Counties Invitational this weekend at Fountain Valley.

His size, however, may prevent him from landing a scholarship. The lightest weight class in college is 125 pounds, meaning Guzman, who weighs 110-115 when he is not cutting weight, would have to bulk up.

"It's just one of those things," Glabb said. "But I have no doubt he could succeed in college. Just look at what he goes through to compete. You can't tell me a kid like that won't do whatever it takes. With all he goes through, he still suits up everyday for practice." Guzman actually missed a few practices last season so he could put in more hours at work. His parents said they needed more money so they could afford to move out of their apartment.

"We didn't have space to do anything," Guzman said.

With the state championships less than two months away, he quit the team so he could work more.

"It was devastating," Glabb said. "A kid with his talent had college scholarship potential, then all of a sudden who knows what he's going to end up doing -- maybe dropping out of school and working full time. That would have been a shame."

Glabb intervened. He contacted a friend, who hired Guzman at Food 4 Less. The hours did not interfere with school or wrestling and the pay, $7.50 per hour, was better than at his previous job in a fast-food restaurant. Guzman rejoined his team and has become an inspiration for the Saints, who are ranked No. 2 in the Southland by The Times.

"A lot of us just try to keep up with him," said teammate Ernie Aguilar. "I mean, just school and wrestling is tough enough. There are times after practice when I get home and I know I have homework and I'll be like 'There's no way.'

"But Hugo goes to work after practice, then he does his homework and he doesn't complain. I don't know how he does it, but he always does and doesn't say a word."

But there are signs that it has been worth the struggle. Guzman has his own bed in the house and he doesn't have to share a closet. He even has a computer with Internet access.

Still, the bills linger and Guzman's quest for a better life remains his utmost priority.

"Ever since I was growing up, I've hoped for something better every day," he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Wrestling

What: Five Counties Invitational.

Where: Fountain Valley High.

When: Friday at 11 a.m.; Saturday at 9 a.m., with finals beginning at 7 p.m.

Fast facts: USA Wrestling ranks this 72-team tournament as the No. 4 high school wrestling tournament in the nation in terms of quality. The top eight teams and 13 of the top 15 in the California Newsletter state rankings are in the field as are all teams ranked in The Times' top 10. Santa Ana Calvary Chapel, No. 4 in the state, and No. 8 Santa Ana, are the top Southland teams.

Tickets: $5 for adults, $3 for students with identification and $1 for children 12 and younger.

Information: www.fvhs.com.

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